Who We Are and How We Exist: A Review of Kristi Maxwell’s My My by Adam Yeich

Impressive and thought-provoking, Kristi Maxwell’s My My (new in May, 2020 from Saturnalia Books) enraptures readers as the writer examines the self, the self’s interaction with other humans, and human interaction with the bountiful beauty of nature—conjuring a world where “we’ve given tenderness away / to the language of meat” (4), where we’re “Turning our girls / into trash with our language” (56), and where “all of this having could lead to hating” (60). Maxwell’s poems are so rich and dense with language play and multiple levels of meaning, that they can be re-read almost immediately and still spark something completely new and splendid within the reader. Each return visit to the pages of My My leaves the reader pondering fresh possibilities.

Maxwell’s previous publications include six books of poetry: Bright and Hurtless (Ahsahta Press), Realm Sixty-four (Ahsahta Press), Hush Sessions (Saturnalia Books), Re- (Ahsahta), That Our Eyes Be Rigged (Saturnalia), and PLAN/K (Horseless Press). Her poems have appeared in Miracle Monocle, Bennington Review, Black Warrior Review, Boston Review, and others. She’s an assistant professor of English and an affiliate faculty member of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexualities department at the University of Louisville.

Throughout the book, Maxwell often uses the language of, well, language—speech, that most basic and necessary form of human interaction—as a metaphor for all the various forms of interaction that populate her book. Expressed in the description as “ecopoetic at its core,” the use of the natural world and the examinations of human interaction with the natural world are addressed throughout the work in magical and sometimes troubling ways. In the last poem of the first section of the book, “And the Dollars, Too,” Maxwell opens the poem with an image that takes a commonly held “beauty” and exposes its truth while also implying blame for the un-beauty of that same image. She writes “Among the irreconcilable things: the way pollution / amps up the beauty of a sunset soupy neon / toxic pink as if the sun were airbrushed onto the sky / waiting to be eclipsed by a couple’s ornate names” (14). In this moment, Maxwell has addressed a number of concepts, including the human folly of pollution, while also hinting at the reasoning behind the damage we’ve done. In the end, the narrator implies that humans treat nature as though it’s there simply to serve the whims of humanity.

Maxwell also examines multiple conceptualizations of the self. In one of my favorite poems in the collection, “Of the Technologies,” the narrator performs a kind of self-examination—expressing gratitude, desire, and growth. I was drawn most to the piece’s opening and closing. It opens, “To prove I am no robot, I tap bridges, I tap street signs, I tap ‘that ass,’ which is to say, I am colloquial, a colonist making do in a new colony of language” (23). The swift evolution of the self (from non-bot to colonist) in the line reveals an expansive knack for transmutation. This concept is again expressed in the closing image of the poem, “the cyst of a bud that ruptures into bloom.” Maxwell has a talent for bringing an image to life in the reader’s mind on a visual level, while simultaneously conjuring a rapid conceptual development on the page.

In terms of interactions between humans, one of the most powerful examinations in the book comes from the poem “Poem Starting with a Misreading of the First Line in ‘The Glass Essay.’” Maxwell writes, “Where is the power: seeing oneself / or seeing another That the mirror itself limits our conceptions / of empathy suggesting as it does that we can deposit ourselves elsewhere / cash in, cash out invest The terms already decided / Do you agree to the terms” (7). Here, Maxwell asks where power lies—whether it’s in how we view ourselves or in how we view others. Her mention of the mirror and empathy raises a question for the reader: does the way we view ourselves affect the way we view (and thus interact with) others? I can’t say I’d ever thought about it in quite that way, but once I read and re-read the poem, I realized that, for myself at least, ideas about myself and my place do indeed impact the ideas I have about others and how I interact with them, which was interesting for me consider.

Later in the book, Maxwell returns to this idea of interactions between people, this time looking at the way larger-scale interactions affect more personal interactions. Her narrator wonders “Who is ‘the company’ – commercial or intimate / Commercialized intimacy / I would rather not see you than look for you / The noise just another version of silence” (20). These lines leave much to be unpacked, but they raise important points about the commercialization of human interaction and intimacy. The word company is especially loaded in that it can stand for the company doing the commercializing or the company one keeps for various levels of social interaction and intimacy. The poem moves on from this image, leaving readers to ponder what that means for them. This moment is yet another example of Maxwell’s ability to show her readers new ways of seeing—a form of growth that appears to be a key theme throughout the book.

After traversing a wide variety of interactions, the book returns with more strength to its “ecopoetic core” near the end of the book where many of the poems focus around the natural world. Maxwell invites readers to “Grieve for the roses when the forests / are burning. O Rose thou art sick” (69). The image of the sick roses reads as yet another reference to pollution and the poisoning of the natural world, while the image of the forests burning calls forth the deforestation happening all over the world. Humans are, of course, at fault in both cases. A few pages later, Maxwell addresses climate change in the poem “On the Common Suffixes of Towns.” She writes, “in a time in which the Earth’s favored icebergs / seemed incapable of occupying the verb ‘to melt,’ a ville / took on age, like a child, thrilled, knowing not of any evil / concocted by progress” (72). The use of the image of melting icebergs will read as familiar to most readers, but Maxwell’s unique approach both refreshes it and calls attention to the larger issue. Even the most desensitized reader’s attention will be drawn back once more to the challenges at hand. The phrase, “concocted by progress,” is yet one more example of an instance wherein Maxwell’s narrator (and perhaps Maxwell herself, though who besides Maxwell could really say?) places blame for the tragic state of the natural world directly on humanity. We think only, she argues, for the ways in which nature directly benefits or pleases us.

In the final poem of the book, Maxwell addresses the destruction of the bee population. The poem “Without without” opens with, “In an inbox, bumblebees are dying / like lights in a light-soaked room in the midst / of an energy drought, power out / any moment, even the sun, a pimple on course / to be drained” (76). The poem—and thereby the entire book—closes on the ominous message that “The hive mind / no suitable asylum. The bees will not be last.” This poem is a dark and beautifully rendered commentary on the destruction of the natural world around us. The closing line reads as a call to action: “If you don’t stand up when they come for ‘them,’ who will be left when they come for you?” Maxwell’s reminder that the bees will not be the last draws our attention to the fact that further destruction will ensue. Readers must ask themselves, what will you do when the natural world is no longer suitable even for humans? It’s an exceptionally poignant message in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. Maxwell’s book asks readers to reexamine their actions and interactions—and the effects of both on the world around them.

My My is slated for release on Tuesday, May 5, 2020 with a cover-price of $16 USD. The book can be pre-ordered now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and most other online bookstores and retailers. This is one collection that readers will regret missing out on—especially in these days of quarantine and social isolation. I can think of few other writers who can so engage the mind and social consciousness. Maxwell’s play with form and structure, her use of vivid, dancing imagery, and her interest in inducing deep reflection is sure to prompt readers to think, and perhaps even say aloud, “my, my!” To read Maxwell's poetry in a recent issue of Miracle Monocle, visit Issue 10.

ADAM YEICH is assistant editor of Miracle Monocle